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Le Serment du Jeu de Paume, or The Tennis Court Oath (1790s) By Jacques-Louis David
What was the Tennis Court Oath?
Taken on June 20, 1789, the Tennis Court Oath (known in French as the Serment du jeu de Paume) refers to the commitment taken by delegates of the National Assembly on a tennis court at Versailles to adopt a new French constitution and establish a representative government.
The Tennis Court Oath marks one of the defining moments leading up to the French Revolution, which effectively ended monarchical rule and the Ancien Régime. Deep systemic economic and social inequities that kept many of the French people down had been eliminated.
University of Cambridge scholar Arthur Augustus Tilley wrote: the [French] Revolution consisted in the suppression of what was called the feudal system, in the emancipation of the individual, in greater division of landed property, the abolition of the privileges of noble birth, the establishment of equality, the simplification of life…The French Revolution differed from other revolutions in being not merely national, for it aimed at benefiting all humanity.”
The Zero Theft Movement, along with our growing community, is working to eradicate the rigged parts of the economy so ethical businesses and citizens can fully flourish. In this article, we will cover the Tennis Court Oath, a landmark moment leading to the French Revolution. You’ll also see how this act of defiance inspires the Zero Theft Movement.
Some corporations, beyond paying only 7% of total taxes, sometimes take it a step further and practice tax evasion by depositing profits into accounts in offshore tax havens. In 2017, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) estimated that “Fortune 500 companies [were] holding more than $2.6 trillion in accumulated profits offshore for tax purposes.”
Leading up to the Tennis Court Oath
Public outrage had long been brewing leading up to the Tennis Court Oath. Quite literally anyone who did not come from noble families comprised the Third Estate, which accounted for 98% of the French population. The diverse commoner class, including businessmen, merchants, farmers, the urban poor, had to pay the most taxes without any special privileges. Nobles (the Second Estate) and the Upper Clergy (the First Estate) lived lives of luxury off of those exploitative taxes.
Along with these systemic inequities, King Louis XVI could not properly address the widespread famine after a hard winter in 1788, as well as lingering economic issues he’d inherited from Louis XV. France had little money to spare by 1789, and Louis XVI knew he had to act before the nation completely collapsed.
For the first time since 1614, the King gathered the Estates-General, a national assembly that represented the three Estates. Delegates from each class drafted a litany of grievances and pushed for wholesale political and social reforms. The representatives of the Third Estate, however, did not like the procedures of the Estate-General—in particular, voting by order, which always put the vast majority at a disadvantage.
The opening session of the General Assembly, 5 May 1789 (1839) By Auguste Couder
On June 10th, priest and statesman Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès opposed the Estates-General voting process, recommending that the Third Estate invite leaders from the other Estates to create a representative assembly. Deputies of the Third Estate, with the support of a number of nobles and clergymen, voted 490-90 to create the National Assembly.
While the formation of the National Assembly amounted to a public act of disobedience, Louis XVI did not lash out. He instead took a few days and planned to unveil reforms specifically designed for the Third Estate. The king announced a séance royale (‘royal session’) involving all three Estates for June 23rd.
Taking the Oath
But the Third Estate operated on their own schedule.
On June 20th, Third Estate deputies went to gather at the Menus-Plaisirs, the usual location of the Estates-General but found the doors locked. Although unlikely, some speculate that the king ordered for the doors to be locked in order to prevent any meetings prior to his scheduled séance royale.
Justified or not, the deputies viewed the locked doors as a deliberate and hostile attempt by the king to obstruct their gathering. They decided to leave the Menus-Plaisirs and just moved to the next open building, which just so happened to house jeu de paume (‘real tennis’) courts. Hence, the curious name of the oath.
The Tennis Court Oath, in bronze relief By Léopold Morice
Jean-Sylvain Bailly, an early leader of the French Revolution, administered the Tennis Court Oath, and 576 members of the common class and lower clergy (a.k.a. ‘The Third Estate’) signed it. The full oath is as follows:
“The National Assembly, considering that it has been summoned to establish the constitution of the kingdom, to effect the regeneration of public order, and to maintain the true principles of monarchy; that nothing can prevent it from continuing its deliberations in whatever place it may be forced to establish itself; and, finally, that wheresoever its members are assembled, there is the National Assembly… It decrees that all members of this Assembly shall immediately take a solemn oath not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require until the constitution of the kingdom is established and consolidated upon firm foundations; and that, the said oath is taken, all members and each one individually shall ratify this steadfast resolution by signature.”
The King Disappoints
Two days after the Tennis Court Oath, Third Estate deputies, 150 clergymen, and two nobles reconvened at a Versailles Church. Louis XVI appeared at the meeting and commanded that the representatives of each Estate discuss matters only within their own class. Those in attendance defied the king’s orders, further challenging his authority.
The séance royale occurred on the following day, as Louis XVI had scheduled. The king vowed to make the following political concessions and reforms:
- Establish a partial representative government, with regular meetings of the Estates-General.
- Overhaul the tax system in consultation with the Estates-General
- Improve the legal system
- Abolish the lettres de cachet
Louis XVI, nevertheless, rejected both the adoption of a new constitution and any fundamental changes to the Ancien Régime. He declared: “the ancient distinction of the three orders will be conserved in its entirety…I order you, gentlemen, to disperse immediately and return tomorrow morning to the chamber assigned to your order and resume your deliberations.”
But after the king had left, the Third Estate defied his grandmaster of ceremonies. Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, famously retorted, “Go tell your master that we are hereby the will of the people and that we shall retire only at the point of the bayonet.” The people would not break the oath they had made a few days earlier, the oath “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require until the constitution of the kingdom is established and consolidated upon firm foundations.”
The Tennis Court Oath, a Precursor to the French Revolution
Perhaps Louis XVI had simply acted too late. He might have kept his head and pacified the Third Estate if he’d just proposed the reforms outlined above earlier. Before the famine and the bread prices had skyrocketed.
By the time Louis XVI proposed reforms, the Third Estate knew the old regime could not go on any longer. They would continue to get outvoted by the other Estates, to be held down by a rigged system. The deputies were dead set on achieving everything they had laid out in the Tennis Court Oath—no half measures allowed.
The king reportedly said “f**ck it, let them say” after hearing about the defiance of the National Assembly. Over the next few days, clergymen and nobles decided to join the growing rebellion. Louis XVI seemingly surrendered by June 27th, ordering all deputies of the First and Second Estates to join the National Assembly.
The ancient Estates System was apparently abolished, and a new constitution would reign. However, Louis XVI had one last move up his ruffled sleeves: force. He ordered his royal troops to surround Versailles and dismissed Jacques Necker, a popular minister who had advocated for the reforms. Outraged, Parisians stormed the Bastille, a state prison that they thought held ammunition.
That was on July 14, 1789, the bloody beginning of the French Revolution.
The Storming of the Bastille (1789) By Jean-Pierre Houël
How the Tennis Court Oath Applies to Modern Day U.S.
“According to the economists, the function of the state was not merely one of ruling the nation, but also that of recasting it in a given mold, of shaping the mentality of the population as a whole in accordance with a predetermined model and instilling the ideas and sentiments they thought desirable into the minds of all.”
― Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution
The Tennis Court Oath marked a watershed moment in France’s history. It began to usher in a new era where democracy ruled instead of the privileged few. The tax structure of the old regime was one major area where the public lost money that really should have been theirs.
But what has the French Revolution got to do with the U.S. today?
The abuse of power and greed has reared its ugly head throughout time. Slavery, the oppression of women, colonialism, all have some economic motivation behind them. The desire to profit as much as possible with little regard for ethical or moral problems. The Ancien Régime represents just one example of how greed can lead to widespread economic injustice. Remember, 98% of the population was in the Third Estate.
While the particulars might be different now, corporations and plutocrats could be ripping off American citizens today. Through unfair taxation between individuals and corporations, hyperinflated prices for goods and services, wasteful government spending, manipulation of markets, damages from financial crises, and many more.
The U.S. economy could have countless problem areas that cause you or others in the public to lose money. As the Tennis Court Oath showed, it’s up to us to fight back, to find powerful and ethical allies sympathetic to our cause, and to identify where we’re getting ripped off.
The Zero Theft Movement provides an independent and secure voting platform that enables citizens to investigate potential problem areas and author theft proposals. Everyone votes on whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas are and start working on addressing them systematically.
Only through hard evidence can we prove where the rigged parts of the economy exist and force Congress to hold all the bad actors accountable. By eliminating crony capitalism, all the ethical corporations (big, medium, and small) and individuals (wealthy or otherwise) can thrive in a system founded on economic justice.
The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.
Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.